Battle of Warsaw (1920)

battle between Poland and the Soviet Union, 1920

The Battle of Warsaw was a decisive Polish victory in 1920 in the Polish–Soviet War. Poland, on the verge of total defeat, suddenly rebounded and defeated the invading Red Army, then pushed it back. It was, and still is, celebrated as a great victory for the Polish people over Russia.

Initial Soviet advance during the Battle of Warsaw.
Second phase of the Battle of Warsaw, Piłsudski's attack from the Wieprz river area on August 15, 1920.

Quotes edit

  • As a result of the Soviet hopes of world revolution or, at least, ideological expansion into Central Europe, the Polish victories near Warsaw between 16 and 25 August 1920 were a key incident in the Cold War. The Battle of Warsaw ended the drive west by the Soviets, a drive which had already led them to capture the cities of Minsk and Vilnius the previous month. Had the Soviets succeeded in 1920 and established a sister republic in Poland, on the model of the French Revolutionaries in Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands, then Communism would have had an opportunity to become more strongly grounded.
  • In this episode, as with the post-1945 conflicts more classically seen as part of the Cold War, the struggle between the Great Powers was indirect: even in the Korean War (1950–3), there was no declaration of war or full-scale conflict. In 1920, the French provided the Poles with useful supplies and military advice, but there was no commitment of troops. Instead, the Poles benefited from their ability to gain the initiative, and then defeat separately the Soviet forces whose coordination was handicapped by mutually-distrustful Communist generals and by lengthy supply lines. Advancing over a very wide front and reliant on long supply lines, the tired Soviet forces lacked depth and nearby reserves. This was a very different situation to their successful fighting advance across this territory against the Germans in 1944. Prior to the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, Soviet strength seemed particularly potent and threatening, and it was unclear whether it would be possible for the Western powers to stop Soviet expansion short of full-scale war. What containment (to employ a later term) could mean in practice was unclear. In the event, after the battle, the Poles, in turn, advanced to within ninety miles of Kiev, before agreeing an armistice. The eventual Treaty of Riga, in March 1921, left Poland with some territory in modern Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, and with a frontier far to the east of modern Poland.
  • While all these untoward events were taking place, amid a ceaseless chatter of well-meant platitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, a new and more terrible cause of quarrel than the imperialism of czars and kaisers became apparent in Europe. The Civil War in Russia ended in the absolute victory of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet armies which advanced to subjugate Poland were indeed repulsed in the Battle of Warsaw, but Germany and Italy nearly succumbed to Communist propaganda and designs. Hungary actually fell for a while under the control of the Communist dictator, Bela Kun. Although Marshal Foch wisely observed that “Bolshevism had never crossed the frontiers of victory,” the foundations of European civilisation trembled in the early post-war years. Fascism was the shadow or ugly child of Communism. While Corporal Hitler was making himself useful to the German officer class in Munich by arousing soldiers and workers to fierce hatred of Jews and Communists, on whom he laid the blame of Germany’s defeat, another adventurer, Benito Mussolini, provided Italy with a new theme of government which, while it claimed to save the Italian people from Communism, raised himself to dictatorial power. As Fascism sprang from Communism, so Nazism developed from Fascism. Thus were set on foot those kindred movements which were destined soon to plunge the world into even more hideous strife, which none can say has ended with their destruction.
  • General Peter Wràngel's Caucasian Army had captured Tsaritsyn that June, but by January 1920 it was clear that the war was effectively over. The Allies cut off their aid to the Whites. One by one the generals fled or, like Kolchak, were captured and executed. By the summer of 1920 Lenin felt confident enough to export the Revolution westwards, ordering the Red Army to march on Warsaw and confidently talking of the need to 'sovietize Hungary and perhaps Czechia and Romania too'. Only their decisive defeat by the Polish army on the banks of the River Vistula halted the spread of the Bolshevik epidemic.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 149-150

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